What Is Wampum?

Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 14:55

The history of money and currency is a long and convoluted one.  In today's modern world we tend to offer a piece of plastic as a form of payment more often than not, and coins and banknotes aren't used quite as much as they used to be.

But in years gone by there were many other different kinds of payment methods being used by various groups of people, and one of these went by the slightly bizarre name of wampum.

So what exactly is wampum?  They were made from clam and whelk shells, and they were used as money by the American colonists.  Wampum was generally seen in two colours – white and dark purple, depending on what type of shell the wampum had come from.  The word wampum is derived from the word wampumpeg, which was eventually changed to wampum by those who used it.

Wampum money was essentially a form of commodity money, since it wasn't something that could be made by the hands of man.  The shells had to be found and used as such, and so wampum was deemed to have great value.  Furthermore it was discovered that the purple shells were much harder to get hold of than the white ones, which was why they were regarded as being worth far more than the white ones.

The history of wampum is a fascinating one, since it goes far deeper than simply being used as a type of currency.  It had a social value as well.  It also had close ties with New York, and was being used as currency back in the 1620s.  But unlike many items used as currency some centuries ago, wampum is still around today and while it may not be used as a form of exchange (certainly not in New York!) any more, it is still regarded as having importance in certain circles; the Iroquois peoples held wampum in high regard and still do so.

But wampum was used as a means of exchange in America for many years, and as more of it was needed to keep up with demand, new methods of making wampum more quickly were used.  In today's climate we are used to the fact that currencies go up and down in value depending on the economic circumstances surrounding them, and this happened to wampum as well, although because it had a value in itself (rather than being fiat money like the currencies we use today) it tended to hold its value more readily than our modern currencies sometimes do.

There are some fascinating facts about wampum that are intriguing to read about – not least the fact that some people actually started making counterfeit wampum to try and cash in on its popularity.  You might wonder how people could make what amounted to fake shells, but when you consider how genuine wampum was created you can begin to get an idea of how it could happen.

Firstly, genuine wampum from the spiral of the whelk can be found on the very inside of the shell.  Counterfeit wampum was made from other pieces of the shell.  Since wampum is generally made into small bead like pieces, counterfeit wampum could be easily made by someone who had the skill to do so.

Another popular method of making fake wampum was to make fake items of purple wampum.  Since this was the more valuable type of wampum in circulation, some people soon cottoned on to the fact that they could take white wampum and colour it so that it appeared to be purple wampum instead.  This meant they could double their money instantly at the very least, since purple wampum had a value which was at least double that of white.

The use of wampum in America reached its height in the 1640s, but perhaps surprisingly for a currency which had real value in itself (as a commodity currency) it soon began to go into decline.  This may have been partly due to the fact that the world was still a confusing place when it came to money; different areas had different currencies and various types of coins were arriving on new continents and being created by different people all the time.

But if you are thinking that wampum is now a thing of the past and doesn't exist in our times anymore, you would be wrong.  Wampum is still around today, although you would now pay money to receive it as a form of decoration or perhaps even jewellery.  A quick search on the internet reveals that there are several businesses around today which sell wampum as part of particular items of jewellery, including bracelets and necklaces.

Many of these businesses are run by one person and it is that person who often makes the wampum themselves, using techniques which aren't that far removed from those used several centuries ago.  Even in those days wampum was sometimes worn as jewellery as well as being used to pay for items bought from someone else.  The fact that wampum could be worn as a necklace around the neck brings to mind the Chinese coins with holes in them, which could be threaded onto string and worn in a similar manner.  It seems that even two totally different forms of currency had similarities, even when they existed so far apart in a more primitive world.

Some things don't change however.  Because of the workmanship that goes into making wampum, you can expect to pay a decent price for it, and the purple wampum will cost you more to buy than the white, purely because of the amount of effort that goes into making it all.

While shells were one of the first currencies that people made use of, wampum in particular has a very special place in the vaults of monetary history, and it's nice to know that it is still being used today – albeit in a very different manner from how it used to be.